Category Archives: Q&A

June is Audiobook Month: Q&A with Narrator Tavia Gilbert

taviagilbertI met Tavia Gilbert last fall, when I participated in an online panel discussion about audiobook narrators and social media. She is a narrator extraordinaire, with 150+ narrations under her belt, and is a genuinely kind and funny person too. (Read more about Tavia here.)

I was lucky to be seated next to Tavia at the BEA audiobook narrator lunch in New York last month, and she graciously agreed to answer my Q&A about narration in honor of June is Audiobook Month. (This is my third in a series of three interviews with narrators.)

Q. How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I was a listener before I was a voice actor. And I was an acting student before I was a listener. I had a long drive from Seattle, where I was in college studying theater, to visit my family in Idaho, and I thought, I guess I’ll get a book on tape for the drive. I went to my local library and checked out a novel written by Joanna Trollope, gorgeously narrated by Davina Porter, put the first cassette into the tape player of my Dodge Neon, and set out on I5. Davina was the perfect narrator to introduce me to the art-form of narration. How lucky I was! She is a masterful storyteller — delicate, strong, nuanced, precise, conversational, heart-felt, intelligent, articulate, and well-read (and these qualities show up in one’s voice and performances, absolutely). I admire her greatly. At the time, I thought, “I want to do that! I want to DO that!!” It took another seven years or so, but one acting degree, lots of work on stage and on camera, a tremendous amount of practice, a lot of classes and coaching, and a huge amount of passion and ambition later, I got my first contract. I’ve been working steadily ever since.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

A: I read the text and get a feel for the tone, pace, rhythm, and feel of the project. I learn about the writer — who they are, what they care about, why they wrote the book. I highlight my scripts (which are all on my iPad — I don’t use paper scripts any longer) with different colors to call my attention later to points that will influence my character choices — blue for specific vocal characterization notes, like dialects or voice qualities (i.e., rough, raspy, squeaky, etc.); orange for character background (like physical description or description of the character’s personality or internal life, etc.). I mark in red every word I need to look up or ask the author to pronounce, so that I am voicing everything correctly. I mark in green every bit of information the author has provided that gives me specific performance direction (i.e., “he whispered,” “she called over her shoulder,” “he slurred, drunkenly,” etc.). Then, after researching all my vocabulary, I’m ready to record.

Q: What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: I have many, many projects that I’ve absolutely loved recording, from science fiction to memoir to literary fiction to young adult to theology. But my latest favorite book is The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, by Jessica Lawson, for Dreamscape. It’s a young adult novel featuring the character from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. But in The Actual and Truthful Adventures, 11-year-old Becky takes center stage, and she proves herself to be smart, funny, brave, loyal, fierce, sensitive, and absolutely wonderful. If I had a daughter, I think I’d like a girl just like her, so it’s going to be great fun voicing her adventures. My birthday is this month, so perhaps I’ll begin recording her story on the actual day, which would be a very fine birthday present, indeed!

And on my dream list? I’d love to record more in the Linda Barnes Carlotta Carlyle series, because the series is fantastic and I adore Carlotta, and Little Women, the Little House on the Prairie series, and Anne of Green Gables, because they meant so much to me as a child.

Q: Where do you do your recording?

Much of the time I’m working in my studio in my Brooklyn apartment, but occasionally I’ll work in a recording studio in Manhattan, depending on the project. My booth is a double-insulated WhisperRoom in an office on the second floor of a brownstone. It’s awfully hot in the summer, but I’ve heard that one of the biggest contributors to job satisfaction is a short commute. At no more than ten seconds between the living room and my studio, my commute cannot be beat. (It doesn’t leave me a lot of travel time for audiobook listening, however. I have to wait until I do housework or jump on my bike to put in my earbuds.)

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

A: Whatever is beautifully written makes me very, very happy, but if I was forced to choose a favorite, I think a fantastically written mystery can’t be beat. I don’t get enough of it, and I’m always really excited when a great mystery comes my way. I really enjoy tough, wise, female leads and wonderful supporting characters; compelling suspense; and surprising twists and turns. I also really love narrating literary fiction, memoir, and children’s and young adult work. See!? I can’t choose! If the writer is skilled and compassionate and thoughtful, has a clear vision and voice, and tells a great story, how could I ever possibly choose?

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

A: More often than not, I connect with the writer to some degree. With some I may just exchange a quick Facebook message. With some I may have a phone call. With some writers I’ll sit down over lunch and a glass of wine and then we’ll email and call and text and become lifelong friends. It’s been very surprising and very meaningful to have developed a few close friendships with writers whose books I’ve narrated.

Q: What do you like to read in your spare time?

A: Spare time? What spare time? I kid… kind of. I really have so much to read all the time, so many books to prep and record, that it’s very difficult to get in any reading solely for pleasure or personal enrichment. But I can get it in in fits and starts, or by listening to an audiobook during housework or while I’m exercising. Almost everything I read for myself is non-fiction, mostly memoir, though I do sometimes read literary fiction. On audio I listen to whatever my favorite narrators are performing, whether that’s contemporary fiction, a classic, philosophy, or memoir.

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about audiobooks?

A: I suppose I’ll take this opportunity to ask that no one ever ask a narrator again, “Do you also act?” Audiobook narrators are acting every time they sit behind the mic. The art-form of narration is specialized acting performance. Just as we would if we were in a play or a film, we’re developing character, playing our objectives, making specific acting choices to bring the text to life. We are voice actors, and if you listen to an audiobook, you’re listening to an actor perform just for you! How awesome is that?

Thank you, Tavia!

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Patrick Lawlor

Patrick-LawlorI have had the pleasure of meeting audiobook narrator Patrick Lawlor twice, at BEA 2013 and 2014. He’s an incredibly friendly, interesting guy who has recorded over 300 audiobooks in just about every genre. He has been an Audie Finalist 3 times, and has received several AudioFile Earphones Awards. He has won one Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, Numerous Library Journal and Kirkus Starred Audio Reviews, Multiple Editors Pick, Top 10 and Year’s Best Lists.

Patrick has helped fuel my obsession with audiobook narrators by answering my questions here on EDIWTB as part of June is Audiobook Month. Thanks, Patrick! You can follow Patrick on Facebook here.

Q: How did you get into audiobook narration?

A: I started out as an actor, primarily on stage. Actually, my MFA is in Classical Acting, primarily Shakespeare. I have done all I can to make a living as an actor, and part of that has been expanding my definition of what it means to be a working actor. Subsequently, over the years, I have done stage, film, television, radio plays, theme parks, renaissance faires, murder mystery weekends, corporate training projects, industrial films. I’ve been an actor, director, stuntman, fight choreographer, teacher, tour guide, dancer, pub singer, bad mime, and yes, waiter, bartender and LOTS of file clerk gigs.

I was very lucky to get into audiobooks at a time when there were a lot less people trying to do this for a living. The Audio Publishers’ Association held a yearly job market, which was, in essence, a chance for prospective narrators to audition for a bunch of publishers at once, and then have several opportunities to socialize with them and start to get to know them. I was able to make several lasting relationships and got my first gig halfway through the day! I did 5 books my first year, 9 my second year, and about 12 my third. Since then, I average between 25 and 30 books a year. This has become my full-time job and I couldn’t be happier about it. I still do theatre when I can, but mainly I record. I have a studio in my home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and these days, record most of my work there, though I still travel to studios all over the country.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

A: As far as my preparation is concerned, I have a fairly flexible routine. Each book is unique and presents unique challenges. Some have a lot of technical, foreign or invented words that need pronunciations. Some need a lot of character voices and/or accents or dialects. Sometimes I have to learn a whole way of talking, for instance if I’m reading military nonfiction, business books  or any number of things I don’t personally know about. Nothing is worse than listening to an authority who obviously doesn’t really know what he’s talking about! Generally, though, I always read the book (well, almost always. Sometimes time prohibits a pre-read). I make a list of all words I don’t know how to say. You’d be surprised how many everyday words you think you know that you’ve never actually said aloud. I pay special attention to real people’s names, regional pronunciations, odd words and technical words and phrases. If possible, I talk to the author to get her/his take on pronunciations and anything else they might find important. If it is a nonfiction, I then start to record. I normally do not do any distinct voices for nonfiction, unless they are specifically called for or the person has a famous voice. If it is fiction, this is where the fun starts. Character work! I come up with voices, accents and dialects for every character in the book. I draw as much as possible from clues in the text – accent, stutter, quiet, fast talker, etc. Once this is done, I hit the studio!

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

A: Honestly, I love all genres. I really like the diversity of the material I get to read. If I had to pick a favorite genre, though, I’d have to say its a tie between Crime Thrillers and Young Audience books. Oh, and Dog Books! I LOVE Dog Books! And Romance. I’ve been doing a lot more of that lately and really enjoying it! Oh, heck! I like most of the stuff I read! Which is a good thing, because what I read for work is pretty much all I read. I don’t really get the opportunity to read much outside of what I’m recording, so I’m lucky I enjoy it! Mostly, when I do get the chance to look at outside stuff, it’s Runner’s World magazine, or stuff like the Harry Potter books. (Which should tell you how long its been since I read as a leisure activity!) My 13 year old niece is after me to read the Divergent books, so I foresee those will be next.

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

A: I really value interaction with the authors whose work I record. Unfortunately, I don’t get to do it enough. Whenever I do, I get fantastic insight into the work, and am able to craft my work to better serve what they have done. I feel that, with very few exceptions, narrators and authors should do everything they can to develop a working relationship. It only helps the work. This is especially true when dealing with a series. I have one author that I have worked with now for 10 years, recording over 20 books. Her name is Suzanne Brockmann and she writes mainly Romance. But FUN, action-adventure, Navy SEAL, high-octane Romance. Lots of humor, action and really good writing. They are the most fun books I do. I look forward to working on them. Generally, I read them with a female partner, as Suz writes in a deep POV style that lends itself to dual reads. I have had great partners in these reads, mainly Melanie Ewbank, but also Renee Raudman and one book with Angela Dawe! With that kind of talent, really, all I have to do is show up! Suz and I hit it off right away, and over the years we have gotten to the point where we are in each others’ heads. I know what she is going to say as I’m reading, and she knows how I’m going to sound as she’s writing! Mel and Renee and I have bonded with Suz in a way that is remarkable and fairly rare. It has gotten to the point where she knows us and writes characters specifically for us to read.  We have developed a shorthand that makes our jobs much easier. There is always a real team feel when we do a Suzanne Brockmann book. In addition, Suz and I have gotten to be friends, though I just met her face-to-face for the first time last month in New York. Our relationship allows us to cut to the chase when we’re working. I like to think we both do better work because of it. I know it’s more fun!

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about you?

A: What else can I tell you about myself? I have won 4 Audiofile Earphones Awards and a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award. I have been an Audie Award Finalist 3 times. I have several starred reviews from Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. I have been featured in numerous Best Of, Year’s Best, Editor’s choice, Fan Favorite and other similar lists. I am the only working male audiobook narrator in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (There ARE two female narrators, but one of them lives in a suburb, and the other does mostly theatre). I’m happily married to the very talented filmmaker, Karen Erbach (check out the Girl Scouts of America’s 100th Anniversary commercial, To Get Her There. It still airs all over the country! I’m a huge fan!) We have a fantastic 4 year-old American Staffordshire (Pittie) Mix named Charlie, who is, quite possibly, the best dog in the world, and we foster a 1 year old Boxer/Pit mix named Billy who is… stinking cute and trying really hard to be a good dog. To relax in our spare time, we run marathons.

Q&A With Audiobook Narrator Therese Plummer

Last week, I was in NY for BEA 2014. One of my favorite parts of BEA is the annual audiobook narrator-blogger lunch. Last year was my first one, and I was very excited to go again this year. It’s an amazing opportunity to sit down with a bunch of very talented narrators and talk to them about the process of bringing a book to life via audio. I was in heaven.

Therese

Therese Plummer (r) and me (l) at the narrator/blogger lunch at BEA 2014

I met a number of new narrators this year and also got to catch up with some friends who I met last year. At one point, I told Tavia Gilbert (who will be interviewed on EDIWTB later this month) that I had written a Top 10 Best Audiobooks post last June for June is Audiobook Month (JIAM). I read her the list of audiobooks, and she told me that one of the narrators – Therese Plummer, who narrated Faith by Jennifer Haigh – was sitting down at the other end of the table. I totally geeked out and had to go down to meet Therese in person. We hit it off instantly and bonded over our love of Jennifer Haigh. A week later, we’re connected on social media and she has answered a Q&A on EDIWTB.

So here is the Q&A with Therese, who is a FANTASTIC narrator. You can really get a sense of why she loves what she does, and why she’s so good at it. There is a lot of dedication there to making an emotional connection with the material and being faithful to the author’s story. I will definitely be seeking out more of Therese’s work.

Q: How did you get into audiobook narration?

A; I took a class with Robin Miles about 8-9 years ago and auditioned for something with BBC at what was then Talking Books in midtown Manhattan. Mike Charzuk, Executive Producer at Audible, Inc., heard my audition and called me at my day job. I was working as an assistant in a financial firm to pay my bills while auditioning and trying to make it as an actress. Mike mentioned hearing my audition and wanted to know if I was willing to come in and audition for him as a narrator? I had no idea who Audible was or what he was asking me but I said yes of course I will come and audition. I read and landed two contracts with Audible. I took a week’s vacation from my day job and that week I worked every day recording my first Audiobook, Susan Mallery’s “Delicious.” At night I was rehearsing for an off-off Broadway show. I was in heaven and knew this what was I was supposed to be doing. Working as an actress! The day I returned to my day job my boss called me into his office and said they had to let me go as there was not enough work to justify my position. 5pm that same day Mike called me and asked if I was available to start narrating earlier as his other narrator could not finish her contract due to pregnancy. I said, “Yes that should work out just fine, thank you so much!” Since then I have been so blessed to work for so many amazing publishers around NYC.

Q: How do you prepare for a new narration role? Do you read the whole book through to get a sense of the characters and story?

I absolutely do. I have to. I read the entire story and I learn about my characters and arcs and tones and moods and flow of the story. I go back and underline in different colors my characters so my brain registers once I am in the booth whose voice is coming up. I record off of an iPad these days and I use a program called iAnnotate that is a godsend in prepping my stories. The author tells me everything I need to know. I do not have to reinvent anything. My job is to honor the text and bring his/her words to life through my acting. It is such a gift to do this.

Q: What is your favorite book that you’ve recorded? Any books on your dream list?

A: My favorite book I recorded to date was Faith by Jennifer Haigh. I am not sure if it was because I grew up Irish Catholic and found the entire story so completely fascinating but I was able to connect to Jennifer’s characters in such an intimate way that I felt like I was in the living room telling this story to my sisters. It felt like family. She is a superb storyteller and my job felt so easy as she gave me such descriptive and palpable characters that to bring them to life was a joy for me. I told my producer, Paula Parker, the last day of recording that I didn’t want it to end. It is my Mom and Dad’s favorite audiobook to date. That makes me happy!

I’ve always wanted to record To Kill a Mockingbird or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Q. Where do you do your recording?

A: When I am working for Audible I travel to Newark, NJ to record in their booths. I record in NYC for Recorded Books, Harper, Penguin and Hachette.

Q: What is your favorite genre for narrating?

I actually LOVE YA books! Julie Kagawa’s vampire series that I have been so lucky to narrate rocks my world with every book. I don’t know if it’s because I am emotionally 16 on a good day or what but I love those characters and stories so much! I also love Literary Fiction. Besides Faith my other favorites have been Return To Me by Justina Chen, Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Want Not by Jonathan Miles and The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. And I will admit I adore recording Romance. I have been working on a series for Robyn Carr for the last five years. I was lucky enough to do her Virgin River and Thunder Point series and I literally built this town in Northern California with each book adding more and more characters until I literally felt like they were my family.

Amazing!

Q: How much interaction, if any, do you have with the author while you’re recording?

I have adopted Robyn Carr as a second Mom and she has accepted. She and I were able to do an event together at the Mid-Winter Library Conference in Seattle for Recorded Books and it was amazing. I could sit and talk with her for days. She is literally the sweetest, nicest and funniest woman I have ever met. Recording Justina Chen’s Return To Me was another incredible experience for me. She was able to call us with input during the recording and was just so excitedI was narrating all I wanted to do when the book was over was give her a hug. The story was incredible. I realized she was in Seattle and I reached out to her the weekend I attended the conference with Robyn Carr asking her if she wanted to get tea. She said I am going to throw my book release party the weekend you are in town and would you be my guest of honor and read a section of the book? Well after getting off the floor I shrieked “Yes of course!”. The book party was hosted in a bookstore and was packed with all of the people she had based the characters in her book off of. As I realized this I became very emotional. I said to her and the audience when I was finished reading, “Thank you for allowing me such an intimate seat on your life story. I realize at this moment why what we do as writers and narrators is so powerful.” That day shifted something in me about the work I do on such a fundamental level. What a gift it is to tell people’s stories and be a part of their healing journeys. I felt connected to the human race in such a deep way.

I will reach out to authors especially when working on their book has changed me in some way. I sent Jennifer Haigh and Jonathan Miles emails thanking them for choosing me to record their books and shared with them what the experience was like for me. They were both very grateful and gracious.

Q: What do you like to read in your spare time?

Ha! The joke is that I have started seven different books five years ago and can’t finish any of them because of needing to prep my Audio books. But on my nightstand right now is Her by Christa Parravani. I read a few pages before bed each night.

Q: Anything else you would like my readers to know about audiobooks?

I always heard my mom talk about audiobooks and how amazing they were and I was like yeah yeah just read the book! Little did I know how transformative a story can become with the right voice narrating it. I like to think I am able to bring some joy to someone listening to my narration. That service is why I do what I do but also because there are so many great stories to be told. It is the oldest form of entertainment and I am blessed and lucky to do it almost every day.

Q&A With Debbie Stier, author of THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT

I recently reviewed (and loved) Debbie Stier’s The Perfect Score Project, a book about her year spent studying for and taking the SAT seven times. Debbie graciously agreed to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. Here it is:

debbie-stierQ: At what point in the project did you decide that you would write a book about it? 

A: I started poking around the SAT in the summer of 2010 and was instantly hooked. It took a few weeks before I declared on my blog that wanted to try for a perfect score.  At the time, I was thinking I’d take one SAT!

But then a publisher called and said, “that’s a book,” at which point I came up with a “book structure” i.e. taking every test every time it was offered in 2011 (7 times) at different test locations (5, because I had to repeat a few), and trying out 12 different methods of test prep (i.e. 1 per month).

I was going to write a “consumer report” on the SAT and test prep.

Then, my kids rebelled halfway through and an unanticipated layer was added to the story: how to motivate a teenager to care about the SAT.

Q: This must have been a difficult book to organize, considering that you had so many concurrent efforts going at once. How did you keep everything straight so that you could divide up the topics so neatly into chapters?

A: An author told me to have the structure down before starting to write, which I took seriously and spent months figuring out. The story part of the book is written chronologically, which was easy; trying to figure out the point of each chapter took months of sorting through notes.

After the first draft, I pulled out the “hard [SAT] info” and put it into boxes within the narrative, which freed me up and I was able to tell the story more easily.

Q: Was it difficult to isolate the distinct impact that each study method had on your test-taking ability? 

A: Yes, though I always knew the project was an anecdotal experiment, not scientific.

Q: Has your audience been mostly parents, students, or educators/test industry professionals?

A: I wrote the book with parents in mind and have been surprised that many have given it to their kids to read after finishing. I probably wouldn’t have shared all my “secrets,” had I known there would be teenagers reading!

I also get a lot of email and calls from educators and test industry professionals, which is gratifying. From the reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the audience seems to be evenly divided between parents, students, educators and test industry professionals.

Q: Did you take time off from your publishing job to do The Perfect Score Project? 

A: Yes! There is no way I could have written a book and held a job at the same time.  I couldn’t even look at the Internet while writing. It took total and utter focus.

Q: You love the SAT, but for most kids it is a dreaded experience that they are happy to put behind them. Given your perspective on the test, do you think it is a useful barometer for colleges to evaluate achievement, ability, and the likelihood of success?

A: I think the SAT is an accurate barometer one’s mastery of the skills tested: reading, writing and math – at one moment in time.  I’m living proof that you can improve significantly, so it’s definitely a test of ability, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate predictor of “success in life.”

I read one study that said your high school’s SAT average is a better predictor of success in life than your personal SAT score. That seems more accurate to me.

Q: Any more books on the horizon or are you back to your day job?

A: Not sure!

I’m in the midst of writing another book about educating my daughter Daisy (now home schooled), and, she is writing a novel that I’m in the midst of editing.

My guess is that her book and proposal will be finished before mine.

Q: Did you enjoy recording the audio of The Perfect Score Project?

A: I loved it!  I’d do it again in a heartbeat, though I wish I’d taken diction lessons before I recorded it!

Next time!

Q&A With Ann Patchett, “THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE”

Last week, Ann Patchett came to my local indie, Politics & Prose, for a reading and Q&A around her new collection of essays, This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage. Patchett’s talk was smart, irreverent, and very entertaining. From what I learned of Patchett by reading Truth and Beauty, I was expecting someone shy and retiring. Not so – she’s feisty and funny and confident.

Here is a writeup of the talk and the questions from the audience.

AP: Here is how This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage came about. In my house in Nashville, I had bins full of hard copies of essays I have written over the years for various publications. A young woman that I had worked with before [and who now lives in Nashville and is the head of events and marketing at Patchett's bookstore, Parnassus Books] decided that it was time to digitize them. She scanned them all, and then decided that I should put out a book of essays. I said no, but she’s a bossy type and said yes.

I don’t read my own work. I can’t read my own books, nor do I read interviews with me. But every time something important happens to me, I write about it, and then I put the article in the bin. It took me a long time to read through this collection of essays, and when I did, I hated it. I took out everything that was bad, and then thought about what I wanted to include. So even though I thought I couldn’t do it, I worked on the book. I had published articles in such random places that I figured no one could see all of them, and now here they were in one place. Put together, it all seemed embarrassing, exposed.

What changed everything for me was opening Parnassus Books. I went from being an indoor, private, controlled person to an outdoor person. All of a sudden, I was doing a lot of interviews and speeches about the importance of independent bookstores. I was reluctant to open the bookstore, but now I know that it has been good for me. I have a lot of friends at the store; I see a lot of authors there on book tours; my dog hangs out there; and I get to force people to buy the books I love. I’ve been doing that to friends for a long time, and now I am doing that to strangers. People are scared of me, so they buy what I tell them to buy. I take books out of their hands and say, “Can we talk about this?” I have become a spokesperson for independent bookstores. The lowest price may not necessarily be the best value.

This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage should read like a novel – it is about all the things I am married to: my dog, my store, my husband, writing.

Q: Why Nashville?

AP: I am from there!

Q: How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

AP: It was easy with this book of essays, which I could start and stop. There is a novel I want to write when I get home. But the reality is that everything changes – my life has changed, and this is where I am now.

Q: When did you know you wanted to write?

AP: Before memory – age 4 or 5. There is a long essay in this book, “The Getaway Car”, which contains all of my advice about being a writer. Whenever someone is referred to me for advice about writing, I tell them to read that essay. It’s all in there. It’s the smartest thing I have ever written, because no one comes back with questions. It’s the “anchor store” of my essay collection.

Q: Was Truth And Beauty the hardest book you’ve written? Did you decide not to write any more non-fiction after that?

AP: It was actually the easiest book to write. What was hard was that the book caused a lot of hurt feelings and I got a lot of flack for it. There are friends of Lucy [Grealy's] who are not in the book. I have had to overcome and forget.

Q: How did your Catholic background affect you?

AP: It affects everything. I follow a nice brand of Catholicism. I disagree with pretty much everything the Catholic Church stands for, but it is still my religion. It is all about taking responsibility.

Q: You have said that writing a book is like pinning down a butterfly.

AP: Yes. When I have an idea for a book in my mind, it is the most beautiful, perfect novel in the history of the world. When it’s completely in my imagination, it is full of movement, color, and dimension. As soon as I write it, it becomes flat. Writing is “a death of dreams”.

Q: Bel Canto is one of my favorite books. How did it come about?

A: Like most of my books, Bel Canto is about a group of strangers thrown into confinement. I write about this theme over and over. This was my fourth book. It came out in May 2001, and after September 2001, people were very interested in terrorism. A lot of people thought I set out to write a book about terrorism – not true. Like The Kite Runner, the stars were aligned.

Q: Which books are you recommending in your store?

A: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra,  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, The All of It by Jeannette Haien.  A book of essays that is better than mine is A Day at the Beach by Geoffrey Wolf. Books are like lemmings – they are always being pushed off the shelf by other books. I try to save the ones that I love.

Q&A with Ben Dolnick about AT THE BOTTOM OF EVERYTHING

photo-ben

Ben Dolnick, courtesy of his website. Photo credit Michael Lionstar.

One of my favorite things that has come from writing this blog is the great fortune I’ve had to interact with authors after I’ve read their books (and sometimes even while I am reading them).  Luckily, authors answer my emails and tweets, and they take time from their busy lives to answer my questions and indulge my amateur theories about their books.

This time, Ben Dolnick, author of At The Bottom Of Everything (reviewed here) responded to my questions with some fascinating and very satisfying answers. They really enhanced my understanding of the book, and were a lot of fun to read. Thanks, Ben, for taking the time and sharing your thoughts.

(And, EDIWTB readers, if you haven’t already, go read At The Bottom of Everything!)

Here is the Q&A:

Q: I’ve been noticing a lot lately that sometimes authors isolate their characters from modern conveniences like cell phones and computers so that they can make their characters truly “lost”. In At The Bottom of Everything, email plays a limited but important role. Did you think about how much access you wanted Adam and Thomas to have to email throughout the book? How did you decide when to let them communicate with others?        

A: That’s very interesting about authors having to cut their characters off from electronics — I’d never thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense, plotting-wise. There are those funny Geico commercials about Christopher Columbus having a speedboat, or Paul Revere having a cellphone: good for convenience, bad for storytelling (for which obstacles and misunderstandings are crucial). As for my book, I didn’t think consciously about cutting them off from modern means of communication (though the plot would certainly have worked differently if they could just have called each other in India). I did decide to include emails, because I liked the density of information they could convey and time they could cover. Also, and just as importantly, the standard style of email — the informality and relative brevity — provided a contrast I wanted with the main narrative of the book.

Q: The part in India, when Adam goes in search of the cave… how did you research it? Did you go to India? To a remote village? To a cave? 

A: I have been to India, though I didn’t go specifically for research. What happened was, I was already working on this book — I wasn’t yet sure what country I wanted to have Thomas disappear to — and I happened to visit my brother, who was working for the Associated Press in New Delhi. Within hours of getting off the plane I think I realized: it would be very easy to get into deep trouble here.

Q: You have an amazing eye for detail. You drop in little descriptions –of people, of objects, of sights – that seem random but are so uncannily accurate that whatever is happening becomes very real and immediate to the reader. Um.. how do you do that? I am in awe. 

A: Thank you! To the extent that there’s something that comes naturally to me about writing — and there are huge number of things about writing that I find bewildering and agonizing and impossible — it’s probably describing stuff. I have no idea why this is so, or what good it does me, but it is, for the time being anyway, one area in which my brain seems to fire away happily, so I don’t ask too many questions about it.

Q:  On a more serious note, around p. 214, Adam truly believes he is about to die. He starts experiencing “life flashing before his eyes”, but it is different from what he expects. Did you base this chapter on something that has actually happened to you, or did you conjure up what you thought he must have been feeling? (I guess that is what writers do…). 

A: No, happily, nothing like this has ever happened to me. I have, in I’m sure the ways that everyone has, felt myself in danger at various points — near-miss car accidents, standing too near a drop-off, etc. — so I think I probably just extrapolated a bit from what that sort of situation can bring up. But mostly it was just guess-work and a question of what felt right to me, for better or worse.

Q: Why did you pick India as the setting for the second half of the book? The combination of chaos and spirituality?

A: Yes, chaos and spirituality sums it up pretty well. Because my brother happened to be working there, there was also a certain amount of arbitrariness/serendipity in the book being set in India, but it ended up being very much in keeping with what I was after.

Q: Who is the “real” Thomas – the one desperate yet lucid lying at the bottom of the cave, or the one from the hotel and the final email? 

A: I don’t know! I know that’s an unsatisfying answer, and if I were a reader of my book, rather than the writer of it, I would certainly expect me to have something more intelligent to say about it, but I really don’t think I do. Part of what I wanted to do in the book was to write about what it would be like if there were an actual, enlightened being alive today, and to some extent that I think the two Thomas’s you describe represent two phases of his development in that direction.

Q: Ok, I have to know – have you read Elliott Holt’s You Are One Of Them, and have you two compared notes at all? Your books are so similar in many ways, and I loved them both. I keep imagining the conversations you two could have.

A: I did meet Elliott at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and she seems so totally great that I’m delighted to have my book overlap with hers, but I actually haven’t read her book yet, and most of our conversation was about where we went to high school (we both grew up in DC) rather than anything literary. I’m eager to read it, though!

Q:   What can we expect next from you?  More novels, I hope.

A: I’m still in that early phase of sorting out the shape and direction of my next book — it feels like a very prolonged period of dating someone, getting to know their personality and interests and etc. — but I’m hoping that we’ll commit to each other soon.

Q&A with Elliott Holt, author of YOU ARE ONE OF US

Earlier this summer, I read You Are One Of Them, by Elliott Holt (reviewed here). I really enjoyed it, and got in touch with Holt to see if she’d be willing to do a Q&A on EDIWTB. She agreed, and gave me some excellent answers to my questions. It was a very satisfying Q&A – thanks so much to Elliott Holt for taking the time to respond to my questions!

Q: I have a theory that some authors deliberately set their books in extremely remote settings or earlier time periods in part so that social media and technology won’t play a role in their characters’ lives. Do you think that the hyperconnected-ness of today’s society, and the fact that many of us communicate not by words or actions but by texts, posts, and tweets, has complicated modern fiction?

It’s true that technology has changed the way we communicate and those changes are starting to infiltrate literature. (I’ve read quite a few novels featuring email, for example.) I don’t think that technology has complicated fiction, but there are certain plots that would no longer work. (Nowadays, if a bad guy cuts the phone line in a horror story, the potential victim could just call the police from her cell phone.) But even with all these new ways to connect, we humans still fail to communicate sometimes. And the tension between what we say and what we mean is still rich material for fiction to explore. There’s still subtext and longing. There will always be subtext and longing.

Q. You basically nailed my middle school experience in You Are One Of Them (minus the friend who went to Russia). What is it about that time of life that provides such fertile ground for fiction?

I think that a lot of what girls experience between the ages of 10 and 13 is universal. No matter where you grow up or go to school, you’re dealing with a lot of the same issues: puberty and cliques, the need to belong and the struggle to define yourself. That age is full of conflict (internal and external). And conflict is essential for fiction!

Q. The ending of You Are One Of Them is a bit controversial, because it could go one of two ways. Do you have a strong opinion about which way it goes?

Was it all a brilliant con created by Svetlana? Or was Sarah’s best friend really a defector? I know the answer. As the author, I had to decide. I know what happens in the end. But this book is a character study of the narrator, Sarah. And Sarah decides to finally let go of her obsession with her friend and to let go of the paranoid  “us versus them” Cold War mindset. So although the surface mystery is not fully resolved (though there are plenty of clues), the book still has resolution in terms of Sarah’s character. And the book is about the way we believe what we need to believe, so readers can choose to believe what they want.

Q. I loved your descriptions of Russia in 1995. I was there for the first time two years ago and found some similarities with your 1995 descriptions – no one smiling, for example. When is the last time you lived in Russia, and does it differ much from the Russia Sarah visits in search of Jenny?

I first visited Russia in 1993, then went there again in 1996. Then I lived there from 1997-1999. I haven’t been there since 2000, though I’m dying to go back. I love Moscow. It’s an amazing city. I know it’s changed a lot since I lived there in the 1990s, but I’m sure there are some fundamental aspects of Russian culture that will never change.

Q. I read an interview in which you said that “there seems to be nostalgia for the Cold War, which is probably about longing for a time when our enemy was easy to place”. I remember the gloomy Cold War 80s, with the threat of nuclear war and the nightmares that came from watching “The Day After”. Do you think we live in a scarier time today?

I don’t know if it’s scarier, but it’s scary in different ways. When I was a kid, my peers and I were really worried about nuclear war. Now I worry about chemical warfare and about cyber warfare. And about various doomsday scenarios involving global warming. There’s always something to worry about if you’re the worrying kind.

Q. I am amazed that You Are One of Them is a debut novel. When can we expect something new from you, and what will it be about?

I’m very superstitious, so I never talk about what I’m working on. I’m writing a couple of short stories right now–I love short fiction–and then I’ll get back into the next novel. I wish I could tell you when the next book will be done, but these things are hard to predict!